From Biglaw to Boutique

Tom Wallerstein

One of my favorite recurring columns on Above the Law is the “Departure Memo of the Day.” Elie Mystal hit a nerve last week when he published a particularly depressing departure memo from a harried mother at Clifford Chance who was struggling, unsuccessfully, to balance the demands of parenthood and Biglaw. The departure memo lit up Twitter and even the Huffington Post decided to weigh in.

At many Biglaw firms, departure memos have become an ingrained part of the culture. Why are departure memos so ubiquitous, especially in Biglaw? The New York Times put it best:

“The ‘departure memo’ is a fixture at many large employers, and nowhere more so than at big law firms. Departures, particularly of young associates, are built into the business model. Not everyone is supposed to stay, and many never planned to stay, so leaving is often celebrated. Many of the ‘Departure Memos of the Day’ published on Above the Law fall into that category. Excitement at the next opportunity, and a little bit of glee at leaving, is completely acceptable, as is a little thumbing of the nose at the firm. Creativity isn’t unusual.”

The Clifford Chance departure memo struck a chord with many lawyers because it openly grappled with the struggle for work/life balance so familiar to so many of us. But it also raises bigger issues regarding the purpose intended by such missives….

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Tom Wallerstein

Like millions of others, I spent Tuesday night watching television. I wished I was watching the misfit Giants win the World Series (again). Instead, I was watching America’s other favorite pastime: the presidential election. Like everyone else, I watched a giant map of the country light up in rosy red and electric blue. We tweeted witticisms to our followers, and liked our friends’ posts.

I’m sure it was nerve wracking for President Obama and Governor Romney. They had done all they could, and there was nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile. I imagine that they must have felt similar to a trial lawyer waiting for a jury to return with its verdict….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’m always humbled when readers email me, and I try to respond to every message. But alas, not everyone is a fan. My column last week on artificial deadlines generated a long rant of an email from attorney Bob V., excerpted here:

“I was disappointed when, instead of using your column to preach about common courtesy and civility, you used it to rationalize and justify boorish attorney behavior. I thought you were actually going to condemn this kind of BS but instead you went on to rationalize it by fictionalizing a series of explanations for immature, boorish, behavior. Your rationalization about why the partner might justifiably have acted the way she did shows what is all wrong with the practice of law…”

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Tom Wallerstein

My friend Pablo told me that when Monica, a partner, called his home at 9:00 p.m., he knew it couldn’t be good. Why not email? For an instant, he considered letting the call go to voicemail. Taking a deep breath, he answered.

Monica wanted to know “where he was” with the brief Pablo had been working on. She had not given him any particular deadline, so he explained that he expected to circulate the draft for review the following evening. The brief was a motion to dismiss, and he knew the deadline to file was still two weeks away. He was allowing the partner one week to review before she had to send to the client, who in turn would have another week to review.

The partner, however, had a different idea. “I want it on my desk tomorrow by 8 a.m.,” she told Pablo.” “Not a moment later.”

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Tom Wallerstein

Historically, to succeed in Biglaw, associates were expected to be conspicuously present not only during the workday, but at night and on weekends as well. Meeting this expectation is generally referred to as putting in “face time.”

Face time has negative connotations. An associate puts in face time so that he will be perceived to be working as hard, or harder, than his colleagues. The implication is that the time spent at the office is strictly for show, as opposed to serving any bona fide purpose. Some attorneys are especially resentful of face-time requirements because they believe their value is easily and objectively reflected in their billable hours.

Associates, however, are now rejoicing that the face time requirement is lessened thanks to the rise of virtual offices, telecommuting, and other non-traditional remote working arrangements. Finally, binders full of women are able to hurry home to cook dinner without suffering from disparate pay or partnership prospects.

But is that really true? Is face time less important than it used to be?

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Tom Wallerstein

A friend of mine — now a successful partner — told me a story about when he was a junior associate at a well-known Biglaw firm. Phil used to work for a superstar partner who was incredibly well respected by his colleagues and clients, but somewhat feared by junior associates. Phil told me about the time when he had to confess to the partner that he had inadvertently produced to their adversary a small number of documents that had been tagged as “non-responsive”; i.e., documents that did not need to be produced because the adversary had not requested them.

Phil expected yelling and screaming, profanity, maybe a fist pounding on the table. But instead, the partner was silent. His face showed disappointment, not anger. He slowly shook his head side to side several times, muttering to himself, seemingly unable to comprehend why fate should be so cruel as to condemn him to work with such incompetents. He rubbed at his face and eyes, first with one hand, and then the other, as if he hoped to awaken himself from a stubborn bad dream.

After several moments, he sighed loudly, and looked at Phil with seeming pity. He sighed again, to make sure my friend fully comprehended the weight of despair that he was bearing, and then once more, for good measure. Finally, the partner said simply, “We’ll have to call the carrier.”

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Tom Wallerstein

Is law school worth the tuition? Should I take out loans to go to a highly-ranked school, or accept a scholarship to a lower-ranked school? These are the burning questions that this website loves to pose.

I have opinions on these subjects like everyone else, but honestly, what do I know? The legal market was very different when I went to law school.

I attended The University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1996 through 1999.  I loved my classes, my professors and my friends. Sure, law school was stressful, but, as I frequently quipped, it was better than work.

I have distinct memories of on-campus recruiting. OCR seemed stressful at the time, but it can hardly be compared to the stress that students now face In This Economy. In the late 1990s, attending a T-14 school virtually guaranteed you a Biglaw job, if that’s what you wanted.

And we did. All but a handful of my classmates aspired to work in Biglaw, at least to start our careers….

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Tom Wallerstein

When lawyers form a new firm, one of their first, most important projects is usually designing their website. This makes sense because the website is often the first thing that a prospective client or referral source will see. Its importance cannot be overstated.

The process of designing a website (or printed marketing material) is considerably different for a new enterprise than it is for an established one. For an established firm, the process involves trying to portray to the outside world the essence of what the firm is and emphasize what distinguishes it from its competition.

For a new firm, however, the process is very different because you must first conceptualize what you want to be before you decide how you want to present yourself to the outside world. In this way, the website of a new firm is more aspirational than it is descriptive. For example, when a new firm proclaims that it handles practice areas A, B, and C, it often means that it intends to handle those practice areas.

This dynamic plays itself out in virtually everything a new business does. When it chooses a logo, or color scheme, or even its name, it engages in a process of self-conceptualization, imagining what it wants to be. I think that’s one reason why new businesses spend so much time, and so enjoy, focusing on relatively simple things like deciding on a logo. It’s fun to imagine your potential….

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Tom Wallerstein

Blogging is not something I expected to make part of my weekly routine as a litigator. Yet here I am, writing a post every week that relates in some way to my own experience of having moved “from Biglaw to boutique.” This post marks my 40th post on Above the Law, and for several reasons, I remain grateful and look forward to the opportunity to write a post every week, dead weeks included.

If your goal is to build credibility regarding your expertise in a certain area, then blogging — or tweeting, for that matter — about that topic is a helpful start. Blogging about a certain topic is in some ways the online equivalent of presenting a seminar or CLE course.

Generally, the benefit of presenting a seminar is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if you give a seminar, each attendee is a prospective client. But more than that, you also help build a reputation as someone knowledgeable about your topic.

Legal blogging works the same way. If you consistently blog about a certain topic, then you have a good platform by which you can establish credibility as an expert in the field. If you tweet and re-tweet about your topic, then someone searching Twitter is more likely to come across your name and assume you have expertise in the area. I know from experience that valuable contacts and potential clients actually do consult Twitter for lawyers to hire….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve been known to quip, “I thought I was wrong, once, but I was mistaken.” But I realize that my column here on Above the Law has often been “wrong” in at least one important way: I’ve compared apples to oranges.

For example, I authored a “top ten” list of differences between working in a big firm and working in a boutique. But many of the items focused on differences between employee and owner. I compared working where “you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate” with “running your own shop.” I compared “making all the decisions in my cases” with “waiting for a partner to act on my recommendations.” I compared doing the grunt work with making the important decisions.

That strikes me as comparing apples to oranges because all those comparisons actually contrasted being an employee with being an owner. That fundamental distinction accounts for many of the supposed differences between working in Biglaw and working in a small firm or boutique.

But what about associates who are considering becoming associates at a small firm or boutique? That’s the true apples to apples comparison. If you’re not starting your own business, but will instead remain an associate, what are the real differences when moving “From Biglaw to Boutique”?

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